Still shunning the stage, Anthony Hopkins instead goes backstage

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Anthony Hopkins (right) stars with Ian McKellen in “The Dresser.” | Starz

LONDON — He’s a much-lauded, Academy Award-winning performer, and his Hannibal Lecter is one of the all-time great movie villains.

But as he reflects on playing a fading stage star in TV movie “The Dresser,” Anthony Hopkins says: “I wasn’t cut out to be an actor.”

“I wanted to be a musician, but I drifted into this business by mistake,” Hopkins told The Associated Press. “I’m still looking over my shoulder thinking somebody will say, ‘Sorry, Tony, you’re in the wrong business.’ “

The business has no such doubts. Hopkins gained Oscar nominations for playing the eponymous president in “Nixon,” John Quincy Adams in slavery drama “Amistad” and the loyal butler Stevens in “The Remains of the Day.” He won a best actor Oscar in 1991 for cannibalistic serial killer Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

In “The Dresser” — airing Monday on Starz — the 78-year-old Welsh actor plays Sir, a cranky, creaky old thespian mounting a threadbare wartime production of “King Lear” and battling the infirmities of age. Ian McKellen co-stars as Norman, his devoted dresser, in a juicy display of skill by two British acting aristocrats (both men have been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II).

Adapted from Ronald Harwood’s play, “The Dresser” is a bittersweet ode to the theater, with its feuds, camaraderie and magical stage transformations.

Hopkins has no such fond memories of his own early experiences in the fabled National Theatre company of Laurence Olivier.

“I found it absolute purgatory,” he said. “All those endless tours as a walk-on, running on in wrinkled tights to Olivier’s Othello.

“I’m not a good team player. I’m a bit wild and a bit crazy. I just want to break out and do something else, and I just couldn’t take the routine of it. Wet Wednesday afternoons in the Waterloo Road — I just thought, God, what a depressing life.”

Hopkins focused on movie roles after getting his screen break playing Richard the Lionheart in “The Lion in Winter” in 1968. He infamously walked out of a 1973 stage production of “Macbeth” in mid-run, and has not performed for the theater in almost 30 years. One of his last stage roles was a 1986 National Theatre production of “King Lear.”

He says it was not a great success — he was “too young, too confused and too unsettled” to play Shakespeare’s fallen king.

“I just wanted to get the hell out of the theater,” he said. “It was nobody’s fault — David Hare did a fine production, but I just wasn’t up to it.”

Producer Colin Callender said the TV movie started as an attempt to lure Hopkins back onto the stage in a revival of “The Dresser.” Callender flew to meet Hopkins in Los Angeles, and “as I sat down he said, ‘I’m never going to do this on stage. But I will do it for television.’ “

Hopkins said filming “The Dresser” — shot at Ealing Studios and London’s grand old Hackney Empire theater — was “the best time” he’s had as an actor.

“The play is so well-written, and Ronald Harwood addresses the very make-up of the actor,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, I know this guy.’ I knew exactly how to play the man. Because I’ve been that. I am that.”

Hopkins gets to perform chunks of “King Lear” in “The Dresser,” and the experience has emboldened him to tackle Shakespeare’s tragedy again. He will play the king in a television version made by Callender’s company for the BBC.

And it has made him rethink his aversion to the stage.

“Ian’s trying to get me to go back to the stage, but I don’t think I’ve got the courage to do it,” he said. “I don’t think so. I’m not sure. It’s something I just let waft around in my head. Maybe one day.”

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